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Demonstrators call for the United States to share its Covid-19 vaccine supply during a rally in Los Angeles on June 10, 2021. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

WHO Covid-19 Test Deal With Spain Shows 'Path to a Better World' With Vaccine-Sharing

"Today's announcement shows what is possible when saving lives and solidarity are prioritized above making billions of dollars in profit."

Jessica Corbett

Public health experts and justice campaigners worldwide celebrated after a United Nations agency revealed Tuesday that a Spanish research institution struck a deal on "the first transparent, global, nonexclusive licence for a Covid-19 technology," a model that could be replicated for various tests, treatments, and vaccines to help end the pandemic.

"This licence is a testament to what we can achieve when putting people at the center of our global and multilateral efforts."

Dr. Mohga Kamal-Yanni of People's Vaccine Alliance said it "is very welcome and sets a precedent," adding that "today's announcement shows what is possible when saving lives and solidarity are prioritized above making billions of dollars in profit."

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced in a statement that the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) and the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) finalized a licensing agreement with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) for a serological test that checks for the presence of antibodies resulting from a Covid-19 infection or vaccine. The deal is intended to boost the manufacturing and commercialization of the test on a global scale.

"The agreement covers all related patents and the biological material necessary for manufacture of the test," the WHO statement explained. "CSIC will provide all know-how to MPP and/or to prospective licensees as well as training. The licence will be royalty-free for low- and middle-income countries and will remain valid until the date the last patent expires."

CSIC president Dr. Rosa Menéndez expressed hope that the move will "become an example and a reference for other research organizations in the world"—a sentiment shared by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said that "this is the kind of open and transparent licence we need to move the needle on access during and after the pandemic."

Charles Gore, executive director of MPP, said it is clear this "model can work across different health technologies," while Carlos Alvarado Quesada—president of Costa Rica, the founding country of C-TAP—declared that "this licence is a testament to what we can achieve when putting people at the center of our global and multilateral efforts."

Both Kamal-Yanni of People's Vaccine Alliance and Peter Maybarduk, Public Citizen's Access to Medicines director, framed the deal as at least one public institution finally making good on world leaders' promises about the global pandemic response.

"Early in the pandemic, many leaders pledged to share medical tools against Covid-19 with the world," Maybarduk noted. "Their failure to follow through has contributed to preventable suffering, death, and the long pandemic that we all confront today."

"WHO offers a different path," he continued, calling the new agreement a model that "shows us the world as it can be, and the international response to a pandemic as it must be."

"We start small today, with a single antibody test," he added. "WHO already is in talks with second-generation vaccine-makers as well. And we are not naïve about the resistance that many pharmaceutical corporations will offer to following this path."

"But it is a path to a better world: nations, scientists, and manufacturers sharing medical knowledge and teaching one another to make effective tests, treatments, and vaccines at scale. It is a path to mitigate rationing, and toward ending medical apartheid," Maybarduk concluded. "If we must, we will lay it one medical tool at a time."

Although over half of the global population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the rates are significantly higher in rich nations that have hoarded the supply. According to Our World in Data, only 5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

Stijn Deborggraeve of Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pointed out that such hoarding hasn't just been an issue with vaccines throughout Covid-19 pandemic.

"Poor access to reliable diagnostic tests is a challenge in many low- and middle-income countries, partly because of the limited access to proprietary technologies by local diagnostic manufacturers, leaving these countries largely reliant on imported diagnostic tests from the U.S., Europe, and Asia," explained the diagnostics adviser for the MSF Access Campaign.

Deborggraeve continued:

During the pandemic, we have witnessed hoarding of not just vaccines and treatments but also of Covid-19 diagnostics, which has left many low- and middle-income countries without much-needed tests to help in controlling Covid-19.

In this pandemic, access to reliable diagnostic tests is the first and foremost step to save lives, and to measure Covid-19 cases and the impact of interventions. It's preposterous that even in the face of catastrophic waves of disease, resulting in millions of deaths worldwide, diagnostics corporations have continued to monopolize and hoard critical Covid-19 tests for a handful of privileged people and countries.

The new deal "is a promising step forward," he added, while also calling on members of the World Trade Organization to support temporarily waiving parts of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement.

"As large corporations continue to hold monopolies over the majority of Covid-19 health technologies," Deborggraeve said, "this successful licensing of a diagnostic test to the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool should be complemented with the adoption of the 'TRIPS waiver' proposal at the World Trade Organization Ministerial meeting next week that aims to suspend intellectual property for all Covid-19 medical tools, including diagnostics."

Kamal-Yanni echoed that demand, declaring that "we have waited too long for the pharmaceutical corporations to voluntarily do the right thing."

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